Two things to say before I start this post. Firstly, I did my secondary education at a place called Tiffin Boys’ School. Get over it. Secondly, this blog is not about the facts of the past, it’s about my memory. I could go and Google the stats, the sales figures that tell me whether I’m right or wrong, but I just want to tell it how it seemed to me.
I want to write about music, about buying music and listening to music. Actually, I want to write about London in the early eighties and going to record fairs but then I found that this needed writing first. A prologue, if you like, to set the scene.
Because I was thinking about those record fairs and how we used to drive to them in my car and it seems to me that what we had – me and a small group of my friends – was a specialist interest.
I remember when I was sixteen, on Saturdays, I used to take the 213A bus from Worcester Park to Sutton, where I would work in the kitchen at British Home Stores all day. My sanity was preserved by a ‘casual’ called Tony. A ‘casual’ was the term my friends and I used to describe one of the many disparate tribal groups around at the time. I can’t remember much about casuals except I think they dressed in a way one’s mother might have approved of and usually had smart hair. Rather like an eighties interpretation of a mod, now I come to think about it.
Tony and I didn’t have much in common but with an eight hour day that consisted of putting dirty cutlery and crockery in one end of an industrial dish washer and then taking it out and checking it for cleanliness at the other, we worked hard at entertaining ourselves. We put the letter M in front of people’s names and, nearly thirty years later, I can still recall us discussing the musical merits of Mherbie Mhancock.
Sometimes we would sing but our lack of cultural overlap meant that the only tunes we had in common were from ‘Grease’. Periodically, our Scandinavian manager would rush in and shout, in her curiously strangled voice, “Tony and Fenner! No more singing in the washup.”
I was paid ten pounds for a Saturday’s steamy singalong with Mtony and, having collected my pay packet at morning break, I would cross Sutton Market at lunchtime to go to the record shop. In those days an album cost £3.99, a single 99p and a 12″ single (or an ep) was £1.99. In my mind, this remains the perfect pricing structure and, happily, it gave me several satisfying options for spending my ten pounds. At that time I was buying Depeche Mode, The Human League, Japan, Ultravox, OMD, Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, Simple Minds, Soft Cell and Blancmange plus obscure little one hit wonders like The Passage, Our Daughter’s Wedding and Susan Fassbender, wondering about Brian Eno and DAF, viewing Talking Heads with suspicion and also worrying that no one seemed sure whether it was Walter or Wendy Carlos playing classical music on synthesisers.
On the bus home in the evening I would scrutinise the record covers, always feeling horribly cheated when then the inner sleeve of an album was plain white paper, but thrilled when the lyrics were printed out.
I was at school in Kingston and at that time we had four record shops, I think. Well, three and a half. The half was a shop called Books, Bits and Bobs, which sold all manner of fancy dress, bondage clothes, hallowe’en masks and all sorts of other stuff, although I don’t recall any books now I think about it. Oh, they had comics, too, but the reason I went in was for their racks of second hand and ex-jukebox singles. It was there that I picked up my copy of The Human League’s cover of Mick Ronson’s Only After Dark.
We also had an Our Price – still trendy, then, I think – and a shop called Beggars Banquet which was run along similar lines to Championship Records, the fictional record shop in Nick Hornby’s crap book and John Cusack’s excellent film ‘High Fidelity’. The Goths and new wavers behind the counter viewed my tastes with suspicion and mistrust although I alleviated this to some (tiny) extent by purposefully buying my copy of The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed from there.
Finally, there was my favourite, the prosaically named Record Shop, where I would peruse for hours, treated as an equal by the two chaps who ran the shop, who would hold back for me such gems as the limited edition 12″ releases by Depeche Mode that contained live tracks on their b-sides.
(Actually, in those days Millets also sold records, imported from Portugal, I think. They were temptingly cheaper but the sound quality was worse and the covers made it seem like the blue cones in one’s eyes had stopped working.)
Walking the streets of Kingston, returning to school at the end of a lunch hour, perhaps, with a record bag seemed the epitome of cool to me. It was my thing. Or nearly my thing. There were other boys at school who bought records: Jon Priest and Matt Rumbold (punk, new wave, most anything off John Peel); Paul Blake (Genesis and prog rock); Andy Algar and Paul Robinson (Mods, for the most part); and Colin Timmins, with whom I shared a love of Gary Numan and Simple Minds. Outside of our own factions, we mostly held one another’s musical tastes in low regard and yet there was a very loose affiliation between us, because we all liked music.
And now, finally, I’m coming to the point of what I wanted to write about. Back then, in the early eighties, many people would have a few records by a handful of bands. Mostly singles and the occasional album. Or, in the case of people like myself, they would have, at the age of sixteen, maybe a hundred albums. I remember going to someone’s house once who had fifty albums (I counted). What thoroughly bemused me about this – apart from the fact he owned Simple Minds’ Sister Feelings Call but *not* Sons And Fascination – was that he was in some hitherto unsuspected no man’s land of having not a few records or a lot of records but just quite a lot. It didn’t seem right.
I think this all changed when CDs came along and suddenly it seemed everyone had a record collection. The CD player was the must have artefact and, once bought, you needed something to play in it: George Michael’s Faith, Dire Straits Brothers In Arms, Nigel Kennedy’s Four Seasons and so on.
So, have I got that right? Or was it just my cloistered world that gave me that impression? Was liking music or, perhaps, buying music a niche pleasure? Were there just a few of us? Or am I imagining it and music was the almost universal passion that it seems to be today?
And, it seems, you didn’t need to know I was educated at Tiffin Boys’ School, after all. Founded by John and Thomas, don’t you know?